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The dangers of normalising gambling

Normalising gamblingPeople across the country will be eagerly watching the final State of Origin game tonight. Unfortunately, I am sure that for many people, particularly young men, the event will be more about chasing a successful bet than sharing valuable time with friends and family and cheering on their teams. Technology has made gambling a mass consumption pastime and young people have claimed that online sports betting is now a big part of their social bonding during sporting events like the State of Origin.

Gambling messages are increasingly infiltrating our lives and becoming part of our mainstream culture, and I am genuinely concerned. I would even argue that sports betting has become all pervasive and inescapable for Australian families.

Advertising displays gambling as part of ‘Aussie culture’

During the past decade, I have seen a massive increase in gambling advertising and promotion in sport: it is now difficult to distinguish the game from the gaming. Although the government has recently restricted the promotion of betting odds integrated with sports television and radio broadcasts, betting companies continue to relentlessly pursue other ways to advertise gambling in sport. For example, this year the Australian Open—Australia’s premier tennis event—became the first grand slam event to have a betting agency as its major sponsor and to promote gambling odds on electronic billboards.

My fear is that our younger generations are being socialised to this gambling culture. Deakin University Associate Professor Dr Samantha Thomas warns that sports betting advertising is normalising gambling for children and young people. She says research shows that sporting venue advertising is particularly influential because high-profile athletes are performing in front of the young and vulnerable.

The proliferation of wireless connections and new mobile devices are another factor making it easier than ever for our young people to access a range of gambling modes leading to addiction. Technology provides quick and easy access to online gambling and advertising and recent studies report that sports betting companies are turning to sexual imagery, images of mateship and fan rituals to advertise online gambling, depicting gambling as a normal part of Australian culture.

I was encouraged by the Commonwealth Government’s recent review of gambling and its support of a recommendation that will close a legal loophole that has enabled some gaming companies to allow live online betting during sports events.  Our gambling counsellors here at Wesley Mission, consider live betting to be a particularly risky form of gambling, because it is impulsive and encourages more frequent betting and chasing of losses.

The review found the rate of problem gambling was three times higher among those who gamble online, compared with gamblers in general. When you also consider that Australians spend $400 million a year on overseas betting accounts, I truly believe that more needs to be done, including blocking internet service providers from accessing offshore illegal websites.

Gambling should not be a normal part of everyday life

As gambling becomes more mainstream, the risk of problem gambling increases. Increased exposure to gambling advertising and opportunities for gambling are established risk factors for developing gambling problems. It is estimated that up to 500,000 people are at risk of problem gambling, or are problem gamblers. Problem gambling leads to a host of negative consequences: problems controlling money or time spent gambling, criminal behaviour, inability to pay for life’s essentials, poor job performance or job loss and relationship and mental health problems.

Earlier this year, I was shocked to read that even the family shopping trip is now within the gambling sector’s gaze. Woolworths and 7-Eleven were talking with gambling debit card companies about allowing customers to ‘top up’ their gambling accounts at their retail outlets.

Australians had already placed $90 million on these cards in the first half of this financial year. That is a 90 per cent increase compared with the first half of last year. It is a sad scenario when family needs are negated by the need to punt. Unashamedly, it brings gambling into the heart of the shopping experience with vulnerable children at their parents’ side.

When the news about this debit card plan broke, Radio 2GB’s financial analyst and journalist Ross Greenwood contacted me for comment.

I noted that the rogue retail proposition is yet another step in making gambling  more mainstream.  We simply cannot afford to be marched further down  this slippery road without considering the moral and ethical questions or the devastating and heartbreaking social impact of normalising gambling.

More people seeking gambling addiction support

Last year, Wesley Mission provided gambling counselling to nearly 650 individuals and conducted over 2500 counselling sessions with families impacted by problem gambling.  Since the beginning of 2016, we have provided 300 individual counselling sessions in the Newcastle area alone. These statistics are part of a disturbing upward trend.

A fact that I find particularly worrying is that young people are up to five times more susceptible to gambling problems than adults, and studies of adults with gambling problems show that many of them began gambling when they were underage.

Gambling was once the prerogative of certain groups in our society. People had to make a bet—either at the TAB, the races or a casino. That demarcation is in decline as betting becomes privatised and its spatial ‘act’ diminishes. The striking paradox is that as gambling’s broader social pervasiveness, penetration and acceptance increases, the act of betting becomes more cloistered and isolated. The consequences remain the same: problem gamblers still suffer alone and more often than not their family and friends also carry a worrying burden.

It’s time to stop the normalisation of gambling

Through our work here at Wesley Mission, I have encountered too many people whose lives and families have been devastated by problem gambling. Domestic violence, homelessness, crushing debt and family breakdown are all too common. It is time for leaders in government, business and civil society to take responsibility and consider the moral, ethical and social impacts of gambling and the marketing of gambling. While we point the finger at the US government’s fear of the gun lobby, political parties of all persuasions are equally anxious about challenging our gambling sector. It’s time for all of us to stand up and speak out to prevent the further normalisation of gambling, by choosing a different paradigm and future where identity and meaning are not built around a bet and our quality of life is not measured by winnings and losses.

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